24 Jul. 2014 | Comments (0)
Trainee programs for new recipients of bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees have been around for years. Each year, organizations race toward campuses and grab hold of the recruits they consider best for their talent pool. Once in the program, the newly minted graduates are rotated through various functions and departments, interspersed with periodic training and mentoring. By the time people complete the one- or two-year program, they are expected to be fully ready and cultivated for the long haul within the company.
Entry-level programs are an integral part of talent-development strategies and often are the only effective bridge between academia and the business environment. They work quite well. But let’s say you are growing geographically and are struggling to hire enough people who align with your culture and expectations; or you have recently acquired another company and need to bring their leaders into your fold; or you are hiring a lot of people at mid-career who have not had the advantage of going through a formal entry-level program.
At GE, we have created mid-career leadership programs as one answer to these challenges. They support the growth of our talent pool, broaden the skill set, and shorten the promotion cycle.
Consider Jim Smith (not his real name) who joined GE after 10 years as a top-gun pilot in the U.S. Air Force. While he had his BA and MBA, he did not have business-world experience. Too senior for an early-career program, Jim was nominated to the Corporate Leadership Staff, one of our mid-career accelerator programs. For the first year and a half, he drove sales under the guidance of a veteran sales leader. He then spent a year in product development and after that, served on the shop floor as an operations leader. Each step of the way, he was given feedback and his next assignment was based on his biggest skill gap. At the end of three years, Jim had the knowledge, connections, and skills to be successful, and several business leaders were clamoring to hire him. He finally became a key account manager for one of our biggest clients.
We’ve learned several lessons as the Corporate Leadership Staff has evolved:
The employee’s development plan must be customized. An entry-level program can afford to treat everyone equally since most of the participants need the same set of skills. While mid-career programs possess common elements, they must also reflect a personalized approach so assignments can be crafted carefully to address each participant’s individual needs. For instance, one participant may need an international assignment because he or she has never experienced another culture, while another participant may need a shop-floor experience so that he or she learns to manage a large group of people.
Identifying the right “raw material” is essential. Prospective participants should already show signs of promise. Additional assessments and reference checks are needed beyond the regular talent review process.
Sponsorship of the program must come from the highest level. At GE, each of our eight big businesses has assigned a very senior leader who either heads a function or a business to be the sponsor of the mid-career programs. The sponsors ensure that the right candidates from the business are hired into each program, and they play a key role in ensuring that the participants get the most challenging assignments. They also see to it that the off-program assignment for the individual does justice to the investment in the individual. Such sponsorship ensures visibility and credibility of those in the program and positions them well with assignment leaders.
Development results from assignments, continuous 360-degree feedback, and close assignment coaching. Selecting the job the individual will benefit from, ensuring that there is constant feedback (often a 360), and coaching to shape the proper behavioral development makes the program an integrated, experiential opportunity for development in a short amount of time.
There are no guarantees. We have had some participants discover that the program is simply not for them and opt out. This is perfectly OK in our system; our company still continues to view such people as very valuable. When we feel that a person is not likely to graduate from the program into an executive role, the sponsor will still try to make sure that the individual is promoted into a key role in the business. That way, the person can still look at other options to grow and advance in his or her career.
Leadership is a never-ending growth opportunity, which is why we must always look to extend development in an intentional and deliberate way. As the world becomes more complex, accelerating the development of mid-career employees in a more intentional, structured fashion ensures that a company always has a bench of ready, trained, motivated, and high-performing talent at all times.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 5/16/2014.